Saturday, June 09, 2007

Why So Many Black Vermonters Behind Bars?

Why are there so many black Vermonters imprisoned? And why are we so afraid to discuss this question?

Just asking the question raises the hackles of many. And for good reason – because asking the question means that we’re talking about race. But here in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation, we’re hardly immune from racism. It’s virtually impossible to have a justice system that’s blind to race. It’s time we named and addressed the inequities in our systems.

To that end, I attended a meeting on May 23rd with community leaders on issues of race, incarceration, and racial profiling. Present were about 50 people, a third of whom were African-Americans, recent immigrants from Africa, and other people of color. My hat goes off to Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan who convened the meeting and community advocate Hal Colston who brought the issue to TJ’s attention.

We discussed how blacks are arrested and incarcerated at rates many times that of whites in Vermont, and that the state lacks basic data or systems to track what critics call rampant racial profiling. I’m pleased that Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), publicly offered to work with me on drafting legislation to address these concerns, and I’ve already had discussions with Mr. Colston, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, and the head of Vermont’s ACLU, and several others on how best to proceed. The ball is rolling, and I’m heartened that community-based groups of people of color plan to take the lead on this matter, with participation from law enforcement, Corrections staff, and other key stakeholders.

Next step: the Citizens for Social Justice will be meeting on June 20 at noon at the Fletcher Free Library in downtown Burlington. I'll be attending to discuss this issue further. You're invited.